Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy
by Ken Wilber
The Promise of Integralism
A Critical Appreciation of Ken Wilber's Integral Psychology
Review essay by Christian de Quincey
[First published in Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol. 7(11/12) Winter 2000]
I therefore sought to outline a philosophy of universal integralism. Put differently, I sought a world philosophy—or an integral philosophy—that would believably weave together the many pluralistic contexts of science, morals, aesthetics, Eastern as well as Western philosophy, and the world’s great wisdom traditions. Not on the level of details—that is finitely impossible; but on the level of orienting generalizations . . . a holistic philosophy for a holistic Kosmos, a genuine Theory of Everything.
—Ken Wilber (TOE, p. 38).
Why do so many people think Ken Wilber is one of the most important thinkers of our time? Why are so many disturbed by what he writes? In this review of his work, I hope to throw some light on both questions.
First, Wilber’s contribution: In a remarkable outpouring of books and articles—his Collected Works (Wilber, 2000a) already fill eight thick volumes (and he’s only 51 years old)—he makes one of the strongest rational cases for opening up the modern worldview to include not only consciousness, but Spirit, too. With a characteristic combination of verve, wit, intelligence, humor, and provocation he takes his readers beyond the narrow confines of mere materialism and objectivity without sacrificing the many undoubted benefits of the rationalist-empiricist tradition, and without falling prey to the world-denying tendencies of various forms of idealism.
In short, he provides a postmodern worldview that includes the best of empirical science and rational philosophy, and the best of visionary religion and mysticism. More than that: Perhaps other than Kant and Hegel, no-one has presented a comparable comprehensive framework for integrating the “three cultures” of science, morality, and art. He achieves this by the apparently simple device of focusing on what is possibly the greatest central “orienting generalization” of modernity—the notion of evolution—and extending it to a conclusion consistent with its own empirical findings and logic: Beyond the current highest stage of evolution, represented by the human brain and consciousness, lie further stages of biological, psychological, cultural, and social development.
And if human consciousness is the current apex of terrestrial evolution (situated within an incomparably vaster cosmic—or “Kosmic”—evolution), then we have every reason to believe further stages of evolution await either our own species or whatever will succeed us. Those “higher” stages, Wilber argues drawing on the perennial philosophy of the world’s great wisdom traditions, move through higher psychic, and even more subtle, levels (correlated with developments in brain tissue and sociocultural dynamics), culminating in the realization of Spirit (1981).
Wilber is not centrally concerned with the next stage (or species) in human evolution at some future date. He is most interested in the fact that the world’s great wisdom traditions—across all cultures, for millennia—have reported that higher stages of consciousness development were attained by numerous men and women in the past. Those higher states and stages of consciousness, therefore, are not awaiting us in some far-off time to come—they are potentially available to us right now, today.
Nevertheless, according to Wilber and many scholars he cites, there is a trajectory of consciousness evolution for our species as a whole. For example, even though at the time of the Buddha some individuals attained very advanced states of consciousness, their society on average was at a lower (probably pre-rational) developmental stage. Thus, today, our species has evolved to a higher average level of consciousness (the rational stage—Piaget’s concrete operational, or formal operational). Furthermore, it seems a significant number of people have already developed to the next stage, vision-logic; and a smaller number to even higher stages.
So, although a particular individual could, at any epoch, develop to a higher stage of consciousness, the average level of consciousness for societies and the species as a whole also evolves through identifiable stages (see for example Gebser ; Aurobindo ). Thus, today, at the species level of “formop,” on the threshold of vision-logic, some individuals can be at less-developed stages (e.g., pre-egoic mythic or magic), while others can be at more advanced stages (e.g., transegoic subtle, causal, and even the highest stage of all: nondual).
Wilber’s great contribution to modern intellectual debate is to have made a provocative case for not only extending modern science—a model of evolution reaching beyond rational creatures all the way to Spirit—but for integrating it with premodern spiritual wisdom to produce a truly postmodern, all-encompassing spectrum of consciousness.
In a word, his central achievement is to have brought together humanity’s two great orienting generalizations of “Evolution” and “Spirit”—one a relatively recent discovery of science, the other an ancient, and perennial, discovery of religion and mysticism. This is a remarkable accomplishment not only because of the scope of the disciplines Wilber attempts to integrate but also because of the level of detail from each discipline he brings to the discussion.
For readers unfamiliar with his work, the following will give some idea of the wide reach of his intellectual net:
Wilber’s approach is the opposite of eclecticism. He has provided a coherent and consistent vision that seamlessly weaves together truth-claims from such fields as physics and biology; the ecosciences; chaos theory and the systems sciences; medicine, neurophysiology, biochemistry; art, poetry, and aesthetics in general; developmental psychology and a spectrum of psychotherapeutic endeavors, from Freud to Jung to Piaget; the Great Chain theorists from Plato to Plotinus in the West to Shankara and Nagarjuna in the East; the modernists from Descartes and Locke to Kant; the Idealists from Schelling to Hegel; the postmodernists from Focualt and Derrida to Taylor and Habermas; the major hermeneutic tradition, Dilthey to Heidegger to Gadamer; the social systems theorists from Comte to Marx to Parsons and Luhmann; the contemplative and mystical schools of the great meditative traditions, East and West, in the world’s major religious traditions. All of this is just a sampling. (Jack Crittenden’s forward to Wilber’s Eye of Spirit (1997, pp. viii-ix)) and Collected Works vol. 7, p. 406).
Such a panoramic and synoptic intellectual viewfinder is so inclusive that Wilber himself has referred to his overall model as A Theory of Everything (TOE) (2000b). In this paper I will examine some of the key elements of Wilber’s “integration”—his vast and majestic intellectual edifice—to see if they hold together as he proposes. Has Wilber produced a true Taj Mahal of the intellect or is his structure more like a clever and creative house of cards, standing impressively as each part rests on its neighbors, but vulnerable to collapse when some particular component is picked up for close scrutiny?
Is Wilber, as some commentators suggest, the latest in a long line of great speculative philosophers, following in the footsteps of thinkers such as Plato, Plotinus, Hegel, and Whitehead in the West, and Shankara, Nagarjuna, and Aurobindo in the East? Or is he, rather, the latest “new, new thing” in contemporary avant-garde intellectual circles, who may shine brilliantly for his followers today, but quickly fade into the pages of history once the next “new, new thing” comes along? The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between. At the very least, Wilber has earned a place of prominence in the field of transpersonal theory—undoubtedly the most influential theoretician in transpersonal psychology today.
The Four Phases of Wilber
Like so many others in the field of consciousness studies and transpersonal theory, I was impressed by Ken Wilber’s earlier works, such as The Spectrum of Consciousness (SoC) (1977), The Atman Project (AP) (1980), Up From Eden (UE) (1981) and a wonderful anthology, Quantum Questions (QQ) (1984), where he drew from the founding greats of quantum theory to show that subatomic physics could no more enlighten us about consciousness and mysticism than the physics of Newton. But it was the publication of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES) (1995) that, in my opinion, distinguished Wilber as an intellectual force, and, by his own reckoning, launched him into a new phase in his career as a philosopher/psychology theorist. In SES, for the first time, Wilber went beyond the levels or “spectrum” of consciousness that characterized his speculative model up to that point, and introduced his new mandala of the Four Quadrants (see below).
With the appearance of SES, after an hiatus of about five years following the death of his wife, no-one could be in any doubt about Wilber having regained his prodigious productivity. SES was a blockbuster of 800-plus pages (200-plus of which were endnotes). In short succession, he pumped out a series of other books, including A Brief History of Everything (BH) (1996) a “not-too-brief” popularized version of SES aimed at a wider audience, and Wilber’s first to crack the New York Times bestseller lists; The Eye of Spirit (EoS) (1997); The Marriage of Sense and Soul (MSS) (1998); and One Taste (OT) (1999), a year-long journal of personal experiences and critical observations. And now in 2000, he has published two more: Integral Psychology (IP) and A Theory of Everything (TOE) (with references to a companion volume he’s calling by the unfortunate title Boomeritis).
Throughout this prolific career, Wilber has maintained a thematic constancy: the evolution of Spirit and the development of consciousness. Nevertheless, his work has been punctuated by watersheds that mark different phases in his own development. Beginning as a self-styled “Romantic” (typified by SoC), by which he means a belief in the efficacy of regressing to a “golden age” of consciousness as a way to spiritual development (Phase-1).
Next, a sharp about-face with an epiphany he expressed as the “pre/trans fallacy” (AP and UE) that pointedly contradicted the Romantic ideal of “return,” and emphasized the Great Chain of Being as an evolutionary/developmental model (Phase-2). Then, a detailed refinement and expansion of the “spectrum” to include relatively independent psychological developmental lines progressing through the levels of the Great Chain (Transformations of Consciousness,revisited and deepened in EoS) (Phase-3).
And now, all those levels and lines (streams, waves and spirals) are differentiated and organized within the mandala of the four quadrants (SES, EoS, MSS, IP, and TOE). Phases 1 to 3 could be summarized in the slogan “all levels”; Phase 4 as “all-levels, all quadrants.”
Readers of his newer books will find a few new twists—spirals and waves—that soften the charge of linearity often leveled at him. With each new refinement (Wilber has a way of assimilating and accommodating the barbs of his critics), his model grows increasingly complex, mind-numbingly so, as we will see. In fact, the complexity of his latest model incorporating waves and streams and spirals and lines, weaving up and down the “spectrum” and in and out of the “quadrants,” reminds me a little of the heroic efforts made with Ptolemaic epicycles to save the problematic cosmology of Aristotle.
However, unlike with Ptolemy, it just may be the case that Wilber’s “integral epicycles” reflect an accurate accounting of the actual complexity of human psycho-spiritual development. If that is so, then Wilber’s increasingly complex models may be, as he himself believes, a significant contribution toward the launch of the Human Consciousness Project (psychology’s equivalent of the Human Genome Project in biology).
Science, at the very least, needs to acknowledge the reality of the interior depth of the world—of subjectivity, the domain of experience. As Wilber says, it is beyond ludicrous to believe that only exteriors exist. Such a view is utterly nonsensical. Exteriors can exist only in the presence of interiors. To claim otherwise would be like saying the world consists only of “ups,” and that “downs” are just figments, or, to use a favorite phrase of eliminative materialists, just “folk fictions.” Exteriors (objective realities) without interiors (subjective realities) are meaningless. The “fiction” is to believe that one could exist without the other.
And so we have Wilber’s other major orienting generalization: The world, including human beings, consists of exteriors and interiors, the two great domains of his Four Quadrants (see fig.).
Why, then, four quadrants, not just two domains? You will see from the figure that exteriors and interiors alike come in two forms: individual and communal. So, in the Upper Left (UL) quadrant, we see individual-interiors (the domain of individual subjects). In the Lower Left (LL), we find communal-interiors (the domain of mutual intersubjectivities). In the Upper Right (UR), we see individual-exteriors (the domain of atomistic objects). In the Lower Right (LR) quadrant, we find systems-exteriors (the domain of networks of objects). This is Wilber’s map of reality, his ontological mandala.
But that is only part of the map. Remember his other great orienting generalizations: Evolution and Spirit. Each quadrant is co-evolving, from the lowest, simplest forms to the highest, or deepest, most complex realities. That means, simply, that individual-interiors (subjects) evolve, communal-interiors (cultures) evolve, individual-exteriors (individual physical objects) evolve, and network-exteriors (objective, physical systems) evolve. Further, nothing evolves in any single quadrant without a concomitant evolution in all the other quadrants.
Which brings us to the central orienting generalization of Wilber’s entire cosmology: Everything that exists consists of holons. (Wilber got the term “holon” from Arthur Koestler .) Very simply, everything is simultaneously a part of something larger than itself (a higher whole), and a whole in its own right made up of its own smaller parts. As well as consisting of a part-whole relation within its own quadrant, every holon, says Wilber, necessarily partakes of all four quadrants. Nothing exists merely as an exterior (or interior) reality, and nothing is ever simply an individual (or a system). All systems consist of individual parts, and all individuals are embedded in systems. And, of course, all exteriors have interiors, and vice versa.
To understand how the world is put together and how it works, Wilber says, we need to pursue an “all quadrant, all-level” approach—meaning we need to not only take into account interiors and exteriors, individuals and systems, but also the fact that each holon evolves within all four quadrants through the various levels identified in the Great Chain of Being, on the one hand, and in evolutionary sciences on the other. This, in a nutshell, is what Wilber unfolds in his Collected Works.
Style and Substance
His impressive contribution to transpersonal theory and the integration of East and West psychologies and philosophies is, however, shadowed by questions and concerns about his style, and problems with the substance of some of his ideas.
The French have a saying, “le style c’ést l’homme même” (“the style is the man”)—and it seems particularly appropriate when discussing Wilber’s work. I’m very sensitive to taking this tack because I want to avoid the ad hominem style that others have so often complained of in Wilber. Yet his style has generated as much debate as the substance of his ideas, and any comprehensive critique, I feel, must address this. More so in a review that focuses on his first book to deal specifically with psychology (IP). The psychological dimensions of Wilber’s work cannot be ignored—particularly because Wilber himself applies his stage-model of psychological development to those he critiques (e.g., Whitehead), and implicitly to himself (he claims that one cannot talk meaningfully or with veracity of higher states or stages of consciousness unless one has achieved constancy at those levels).
Wilber has been criticized, sometimes severely, for his argumentative, polemical, abrasive manner, often triggering a like-minded reaction from his critics (and those he critiques), resulting in what I once referred to as the “Great Chain of Being Nasty.” Wilber seems to evoke extremes: For the most part, people seem to either love him or hate him (I count myself among the exceptions).
But why the “contemptuous rhetoric,” as philosopher Michael Zimmerman called it? Why this “most disturbing aspect” of Wilber? Why does he seem driven to master the domain of reason, to construct an impenetrable intellectual edifice—an “edifice complex”? At first, the emotional edge to the style may seem at odds with the drive toward precision and reason; but, on deeper reflection, I think they may be intimately related. I sometimes get the impression that this immense rational fortress has been erected to withstand any possible intrusion of ambiguity, paradox, or mystery, and is designed to shut out the messiness of intense feeling. Everything, it seems, must fit. Hence Wilber’s lifelong effort to develop a catch-all TOE, his four-quadrant model, into which everything must fit. Nothing that is real can fall outside the four quadrants (and even what is imaginary or phantasmagoric must find its place there, too).
Wilber is, at times, vehemently anti-feeling, and in the grand hierarchy of his system feeling and emotion are clearly not only “sub-rational,” but also epistemologically inferior. His insistent critique of psychological regression (returning to earlier biographical experiences), and regression in general (for example, Romanticism, or what he humorously and derisively calls the “Regress Express”) reveals a fiery determination to invalidate any possible psychotherapeutic intervention that might require one to open up to experiential residues or echoes from some long-buried childhood trauma (perhaps even a prenatal or perinatal incident?).
In Eye of Spirit, Wilber gives a wonderfully insightful critique of the various forms of reductionism that attempt to deny the validity claims of any quadrant other than its own. He says, “ignored truths actually reappear in the system as an internal and massive self-contradiction . . . [the] denied quadrant will in fact sneak into your system" (p. 23). Is the vehemence in Wilber’s writing, I wonder, an example of the “reappearance” of ignored feeling, “sneaking” back into his system?
In any case, Wilber is very clearly against the ontological significance of feeling. It is certainly true that in Integral Psychology, as we will see, he “categorically rejects” the notion that feeling could play a fundamental ontological role.
For Wilber, feelings are a lure for “regressive” Romantics who hark back to some mythical golden age, or for narcissistic individuals (typified by the Boomer generation) who prefer the easy, ego-inflation and self-absorption of self-indulgent feelings to the hard road of mature rationality and “transrational” spiritual practice.
In place of the messiness of feeling, Wilber offers us his neat, massive intellectual construction. But what if something doesn’t fit? What if the model, the towering edifice, should turn out to be a house of cards and not a Taj Mahal? What if the pre/trans fallacy is itself a fallacy (as Michael Washburn proposes [Rothberg & Kelly, 1998])? What if the criterion of falsifiability fails to function as an adequate demarcation between science and non-science, and therefore the attempt to “marry” science and religion fails? (Ferrer, 1998). What if one of the four quadrants is empty? What if there’s no explanation for how the two great domains of interior and exterior interrelate? What if subtle energies, so integral to the perennial philosophy and the Great Chain of Being, don’t fit into any of the quadrants? What if the Great Chain of Being itself cannot map onto the four quadrants? What then?
In the following sections I will examine what I think are problems with Wilber’s model. It is important to keep in mind, however, that I am deliberately focusing here on areas I believe he would do well to pay closer attention to. As a result, it may seem that I’m being unduly negative, looking only at what I take to be some of his shortcomings, while not giving equal space to his accomplishments. Actually, I have already acknowledged his significant contributions (and have more to add); but—to repeat—I think there are problematic details in his work that, if not addressed, could sabotage his impressive achievements. So, in this spirit of collegial critique, I offer the following observations concerning: (1) his approach to intersubjectivity; (2) his approach to the mind-body problem; (3) his critique of panpsychism and Whitehead; followed by comments on the Human Consciousness Project.
One aspect of Wilber’s work, particularly in Phase-4, that I emphatically endorse is his repeated emphasis on including intersubjectivity in any comprehensive understanding of consciousness. Not only is it essential, it is fundamental. Wilber and I agree on this:
“Failing to see that subjective experiences arise in the space created by intersubjective structures is one of the main liabilities of many forms of spiritual and transpersonal psychology” (IP, p. 1119).
And, I would add, of contemporary philosophy of mind. However, when I examine Wilber’s writings I find his discussion of intersubjectivity to be very weak. In fact, as I will explain in a moment, Wilber’s “intersubjectivity” leaves one quarter of his quadrant model empty—a precarious, unstable foundation for the great integral edifice.
In IP, he gives a very clear account of his understanding of intersubjectivity:
“You, as subject, will attempt to understand me as a subject --as a person, as a self, as a bearer of intentionality and meaning. You will talk to me, and interpret what I say [emphasis added]; and I will do the same with you. We are not subjects staring at subjects; we are subjects trying to understand subjects—we are in the intersubjective circle, the dialogical dance” (p. 161).
Then, in the next paragraph: “the interior of a holon can only be accessed by interpretation.” In Eye of Spirit, he makes the same point: “the only way you and I can get at each other’s interiors is by dialogue and interpretation (EoS, p. 14). In SES, he is even more emphatic: “. . . interiors must be interpreted. If I want to know what your brain looks like from within ,what its actual lived interior is like (in other words, your mind), then I must talk to you. There is absolutely no other way. . . . And as we talk, I will have to interpret what you say” (p. 134). Then, missing the subtle reduction he has just expressed, he goes on to say, in contradiction: “But you can only study interiors empathically, as a feel from within, and that means interpretations” (p. 134). (Later on, in IP, he wavers: “the only way you can get at interiors is via introspection and interpretation”; here, Wilber recognizes that interpretation alone is insufficient to “get at” interiors [pp. 172-173]).
He leaves us in no doubt what he means by “intersubjectivity”: It is a subject-to-subject connection mediated by language and interpretation—and “only . . . by interpretation.” There is no unmediated, direct experience of the other. Wilber’s “interpretative circle,” he makes clear, is identical to the “hermeneutic circle.” But interpretation is a cognitive operation, a manipulation of symbols, or, at best, an extraction of meaning from symbols. In either case, interpretation is always at least one remove from immediate experience.
True intersubjectivity, as I understand it, is unmediated. It is direct subject-to-subject sharing of presence—where both (or more) subjects either mutually condition each other’s sense of self, or, more strongly, mutually co-create each other’s sense of self.
We need to make an important distinction between two basic meanings of intersubjectivity—standard and experiential—with a further sub-distinction of the experiential meaning:
Intersubjectivity-1: This standard meaning derives from Cartesian subjectivity (isolated, independent subjects). Here, individual subjectivity ontologically precedes intersubjectivity. Individual, isolated subjects come first, and then through communication of signals arrive at consensual agreement. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to agreement “between” subjects about so-called objective facts—and the subjects don’t even have to interact (their agreement could be validated by a third party, as indeed is often the case in science).
• Intersubjectivity-1 (very weak Cartesian meaning): consensual validation between independent subjects via exchange of signals. Cartesian intersubjectivity relies on exchange of physical signals. It is physically mediated intersubjectivity—remote and, therefore, very weak.
Intersubjectivity-2a: Here, the sense of individual subjects remains, but now intersubjectivity refers to how the experience or consciousness of participating subjects is influenced and conditioned by their mutual interaction and engagement. The emphasis here is on the “experienced interiority” of the subjects as they interact, not on their “objective” agreement about some item of knowledge. Although this is a significant shift of emphasis from the standard meaning of intersubjectivity, nevertheless it is still “weak” compared with the “strong” version we will look at below. It is “weak,” not because the participation and engagement involved is weak—indeed it could be intense—but because it refers to changes that happen to the form of consciousness of the participating subjects, not to the fact of such consciousness. It is a “weak” meaning of intersubjectivity because it addresses psychological rather than ontological issues; it is “weak” because it still posits subjectivity as ontologically prior to intersubjectivity. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to the mutual “structural coupling” of experiencing subjects, where the already existing interiorities of the participating subjects are interdependently shaped by their interaction.
• Intersubjectivity-2a (weak-experiential meaning): mutual engagement and participation between independent subjects, which conditions their respective experience. It is psychological intersubjectivity relying on nonphysical presence, and affects the contents of pre-existing subjects. It is direct immediate mutual apprehension between subjects.
Intersubjectivity-2b: This is the most radical meaning, and the one that poses the greatest challenge to philosophy of mind. According to this “stronger” meaning, intersubjectivity is truly a process of co-creativity, where relationship is ontologically primary. All individuated subjects co-emerge, or co-arise, out of a holistic “field” of relationships. In this sense, the being of any one subject is thoroughly dependent on the being of all other subjects, with which it is in relationship. Here, intersubjectivity precedes subjectivity (in the second, Cartesian, sense, but subjectivity in the first sense, of experienced interiority, is implicit throughout). The fact, not just the form, of subjectivity (second, Cartesian sense) is a consequence of intersubjectivity. Here, the “inter” in intersubjectivity refers to an “interpenetrating” co-